Origin: Toronto, Ontario, 🇨🇦
Interview between Maria Kasstan and Robert Williston Jun 8, 2023
RW: Hi Maria, where were you born?
MS: I was born in Toronto at the little hospital on Yorkville near Bay. It was still there a few years ago but no longer a hospital. That was in 1950. My Mum came here from Vienna in 1938 and had a husband and child when she met my dad, a literally starving artist. The rest is history, as they say.
RW: What is your musical background and what were you listening to as a youngster?
My musical background included piano lessons from Edna Victoria Baggs, a fine woman and painting companion of AY Jackson, etc. and often drew my eyes to his painting hanging in her studio at the Royal Conservatory of Music which I attended weekly for years while making little or no progress. I liked Miss Baggs but it all felt kind of rigid. There was a piano at home, and I liked to play stuff my own way. I have very little skill in reading music, playing in groups or coordinating with other musicians except as a fan. The radio was usually on, usually a classical program...waking up for school was ''Music in the Morning'' which played Brahms to open the show...majestic cello stuff. I listened to ''Saturday Afternoon at the Opera'' while reading 'Stories of Famous Operas.' My parents took me to see/hear Aida at, get this, Maple Leaf Gardens! That would have been 1956 or 1957. I started singing operatically and passionately for a while...not opera, just tunes I squeaked, drove parents crazy, I guess. The radio had a ''Calling All Britons'' show which I loved. Everything from Vera Lynn to music hall ditties to Scots, Irish and Welsh folk songs. My parents were great fans of Paul Robson who, as a communist, was banned in the USA but was heard often on Canadian radio and held a concert on a bridge, singing to Americans from the Canadian side. My Dad would sing along with him....O Shanendoah! I long to hear you! Away, you rolling river... after which my Dad might launch into stories about his Merchant Marine experiences. I started writing (unintentionally hilarious) song lyrics around age nine, I think.
We had tenants back in the days when people lived in rooming houses. People living there were from faraway places who spoke with accents, had survived the war and/or concentration and ''dp'' camps. A nurse named Eileen kept playing Lili Marlene as she ironed loudly upstairs. One can iron loudly if one slams the iron down on the table frequently. While all that was going on, my friend Tammy and I listened to a lot of cowboy music. Marty Robbins singing those complex ballads like El Paso. I think I was a folkie already and when two Dutch guys arrived with guitars, I was hooked. I started listening to late night radio including that midnight folk music program. My sister had LPs of Ian and Sylvia and Harry Belafonte and I saw Belafonte and Miriam Makeba at the O’Keefe Center thanks to one of those very decent tenants. I think I first heard Dylan and The Beatles at around the same time, my parents were separated, and my dad started drawing portraits for money in Yorkville coffee houses. Before it went hippy, it was very international and arty around there. A boy I was fond of in my grade six class moonlighted as a dishwasher at that place on Avenue Road where Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins and those who became The Band would convene. Tammy and I earned money doing alterations and dressmaking for some moms of friends and tenants and all that money was spent at shows at the Riverboat and seeing Lightfoot, Dylan, Beatles, Stones, etc. live while we also became passionate fans of Nureyev whom we pursued to his very hotel room door. This was all happening before I turned 15. By then, we would sing and play together with a whole gang of people all falling under the magic of that very musically special era. My Grade nine social studies teacher was a folksinger! Also probably a Communist, I think, maybe just CCF/NDP like my parents. He arranged hootenannies at Jarvis Collegiate and introduced us to blues and spirituals including the issues of slavery and racial injustice that continued after the U.S. unCivil war. He got us singing. Today, they would have to fire him in Florida. I was becoming a bit of a performer, sitting on Yorkville doorsteps, and making a musical noise. Recorded a French language version of O Canada for a radio station in Quebec City around that time. Probably the first time I heard my own voice and was somewhat surprised I had one. I started singing more in public, a few microphones around then so you had to ...project. I was offered some gigs to sing ...standards in bars. I didn't know or like that kind of music and didn't see myself doing that. I did become a regular at the Mynah Bird cafe, however, and became the opening act and emcee for about a year. It was there that I first heard of Joni Mitchell and learned her song, Urge for Going, which is one song written by someone else that I loved to sing. Personal life became very complicated around that time including some boyfriend issues, a marriage at just 17 and my first baby at 19 so I have to say life was a bit of a blur in those years.
RW: How did you come to record your album on the Boot label?
MS: I am not sure how I ended up on Boot. I did send a few demo tapes around but not sure if I sent one to Boot or had even heard of Boot. Boot was Stompin' Tom Connors' label and was run by a guy called Jury Krytiuk. It seemed to be his hope to secure publishing rights to a library of original Canadian music. Anyway, in preparation for recording, he sent me two records to listen to in case I wanted to know what they were involved in or hoping for. One was an LP by Rita McNeil, and another was one by Crystal Gayle. I don't think they had recorded the Crystal Gayle one personally...must have been an early one but perhaps they were hoping I could try to sound a bit more ''country.'' (I was always hard to pin down, style wise, which seems to annoy agents, promoters, etc. Not country enough, not bluesy enough, not standard enough and usually too depressing.) I believe that their publishing company, Morning Music, was sold a few years ago. I think I can reclaim my songs in three more years as the contract expires after 50 years. Anyway, not much was done with my music and my domestic life was getting more complicated between more kids, spouse changes, tending our ''zoo'' and the veggie gardens and of course working for money. I can't even imagine what happened to all that energy. Whew. Anyway, I sang a lot of lullabies and funny songs about dinosaurs and spiders, etc. at home and at daycare.
RW: Who did you rub shoulders with?
MS: The people I ''rubbed shoulders with'' included other performers at the Mynah Bird like Cathy Young who is still Toronto's Rock and Roll star performer and Doug Henning, the magician who brought his home baking along when he came for dinner. A lot of the people coming through were U.S. draft dodgers and runaway teens. I just missed Neil Young who was part of a group that played that venue briefly in the year before I got there. (I hear he went on to do quite well!)
RW: Did you play any gigs?
MS: I did play gigs at cafes and community events, staying close to home because of health issues one of my kids had so I didn't tour.
RW: Please tell us about your affiliation with The Green Party of Canada.
I AM a founding member of the Green Party in Canada, having attended the first federal conference in Ottawa in 1983 with my then 13-year-old daughter. Seeing Canada burning at both ends as it does today, it gives me no satisfaction to say ''We told you so.'' The Green Party has remained mostly unelectable because there has been no sugar coating the severity of the emergency since it started. People will keep voting for smooth talking liars of every persuasion providing they see an ''out'' for themselves, whether it be an excuse to maintain their unsustainable lifestyles or an economic reward that will finance their escape from the worst effects of climate change. Now, the major parties all present mealy-mouthed extracts of some of the Greens earliest recommendations as people started to tune in about 20 years in, acting as though they thought it up themselves. It was all just from scientific reports going back to the '70s. The fossil fuel companies knew, the car manufacturers knew, and they covered up what they knew just as the tobacco people did. I am not very active, politically, at this point, except to share what I have seen happen over the past 40 years in politics.
RW: What is music to you now and what are you listening to these days?
MS: Music has become rather fraught lately. Stuff I like usually makes me cry (and I MISS so many musicians now as well as the people their songs remind me of. So many losses from our family and our shared culture.) Long before HE died, we had become enthusiastic fans of Stan Rogers, for example. After my husband died in 2004, I had no means of dealing with the grief/shock/horror of that except music so I started schlepping my guitar out to open mics ....finally, at least most places have mics now. I met a very welcoming and humane community where a country musician named Herb Dale hosted shows and performed with his lady, Fran McCann. Herb recorded ''Love Songs for the Homeless Guy'' with his basic equipment and I became a subway busker which gave me an opportunity to sing, tell or sell the CD of my husband's story to the public. This was in part because it felt healing for me and partly because I couldn't get the coroner to call an inquest into his death and attempts to get the police into court were cut off through some deal between the cops and the judiciary. If you are trying to promote music that comes with police related baggage, that might be one more stumbling block to getting air play, etc. However, now that the global public has seen the depths of what an ungoverned police force can sink to, I may try another kick at the can, as it were. There is little else I can think about even to this day.
RW: Please tell us about The Raging Grannies.
MS: I am still technically a member of the Toronto Raging Grannies, a loosely knit group of mature activists who sing protest songs at demos and occasionally interrupt City council or Parliament with biting and sometimes rude lyrics set to very traditional tunes. I haven't had the energy to sing with them for a while but I ain't dead yet, as they say, so the spark may return. There are Raging Granny groups in many cities these days, maybe even yours!
RW: I understand one of your recordings has a track with a police recording pertaining to the death of your husband. Can you please give us some background.
MS: The last track on the Gamma Knife CD is the actual recording of the police calling EMS to deal with my dying husband on the morning of October 1st, 2004. That is why I was out singing in public again after a long hiatus. I needed everybody on the planet to hear that 911 call which implicated the Toronto cops in basically neglecting him to death when he went into cardiac arrest. They had originally told me that Jim Calvert had been found vital signs absent by a civilian bystander even though this was directly in front of Toronto Police headquarters. They kept to that version of events for about 9 months after Jim, my husband of 25 years, died. When EMS released the 911 call to me, they told me that the cops had requested to have it kept from the family. EMS didn't want to be dragged into a police cover-up so they gave us the recording which I hoped would be evidence for the need of an inquest. I had started busking in the subway system to sing to and about my husband. I wanted make sure that the 911 call went home with my CDs ...some of them ''went home'' to Europe, Australia and Japan among other places. I believe that the many deaths of actual homeless people (my husband was assumed to be homeless because he had a bundlebuggy with him...we never drove cars and used buggies or wagons for shopping and transporting awkward items,) that have occurred since in this city are the result of inquests not being held subsequent to those many deaths. Police seem to be practicing a kind of passive euthanasia on homeless (or, in Jim's case, assumed to be homeless) people and because of their response to our inquiries and demands for believable facts instead of their contradictory and laughable versions, I think many lives could have been saved if Jim's death had sparked an inquest. At this time, approaching 19 years since my husband died, I am still on their case. If this had happened to your loved one, you would also want it to be known about. These days, every homeless death reminds me of how I have failed, so far, to turn the tide on this homeless nightmare.